“It’s important to hydrate!”, “Water is vital!”, are just two of the slogans shouted by Cory Roussel as he crosses the bridge on Congress Avenue, full of expectant onlookers leaning against the bridge rail. According to the US Weather Agency, in Austin, the capital of the state of Texas, temperatures only rise above 38ºC 18 days a year. It’s August and it’s one of those days and perhaps for that reason we decide to heed his words. Even though it’s already six o’clock in the afternoon, it’s still very hot and the hundreds of people on the bridge enable Cory to sell 100–200 bottles of water every evening, he tells us contentedly. This small financial help means that he can earn a living working just evenings from March to November for as long as the bats are present. Cory has grown a contagious passion for bats, and besides selling bottles he’s ever willing to educate and help the bridge’s visitors.
His business depends on a maternity roost of Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) that occupies the fissures in this bridge over the river Colorado, and which every night attracts hundreds of people to watch the bats from every conceivable vantage point: from under and on the bridge, from the river banks or even from boats of all types on the river. The modest Texan river Colorado has not left its mark in the same way as its larger namesake has further east between the USA and Mexico, but does nevertheless still offer a unique natural spectacle of a different type. Up to 1,500,000 of these bats come to this bridge over the river Colorado. Even by day, our noses and then our ears first notice their presence as we get closer to the bridge. At dusk the bats abandon their safe shelter to fly to neighbouring agricultural areas where they will feed on the insects that fly there. They form a long procession that trails off towards the horizon and, with the last light of the day and the silhouette of the modern city centre behind them, it is a truly unreal sight. A strange but harmonious blend of neon, skyscrapers and wildlife make this a natural show that is light years from the idea of pristine nature — but it is not for that any the less attractive. The approximately 140,000 visitors that annually come to see the bats are testimony to that.
Corey’s business is a good example of how the largest urban colony of bats in the USA generates economic benefits that Bat Conservation International (BCI) calculates at 8 million dollars a year. The main benefactors are the restaurants, hotels and the transport sector. Visitors are mainly Texans, but also come from the rest of the USA and other parts of the world. Dianne Odegard, the BCI’s energetic Public Education & Training Coordinator, welcomes us fulsomely underneath the bridge and explains the history of the colony and the long fight by the BCI to save it. The work of this NGO can be summed up as a continuous series of awareness-raising efforts that since the 1980s have changed people’s perception of bats from rejection to acceptation.